Sighns of the Times…

Last week I figured out that garden signs could be — besides being a lot of fun to paint — a way to raise money to replenish my oil painting supplies. Yesterday, still contending with the aftermath of a migraine (seriously, don’t get one) I opened the patio umbrella and sawed cedar fence boards into usable sizes. I didn’t do that long, though. It was hot. The light hurt my head. OH WELL. Better today, but still slightly weird.

I learned — among other things — that the weirdness of the time does not mean the usual weirdness of life stops. There’s still plenty of that.

Any-HOO after I cut them, they get a good scrubbing in the kitchen sink because, you know, they’re cedar fence boards that have been outside for almost a decade. When they’re dry, they have a beautiful, silvery, soft surface. I have two custom orders and I hope to start one tomorrow.

“No, I’M Normal!!”

“Whoops!!!!” should be the word of the year.

Now we’re some six months into the virus stress stuff. I realized a couple days ago that I’ve just adapted to this and it’s no big deal for me any more. Some of the changes it’s brought to my little life are for the better. Some of them are probably NOT good like not going to the doc for tests. I don’t want to do that, anyway. So far so good – I’m knocking on wood or whatever this table is made from.

I have two masks — the car mask and the around-here-socializing mask. Since I seldom wear a mask more than 5 or 10 minutes at a time, they’re no big deal, either, and I have a dozen “buffs” or “neck gaiters.” The hard part has been saying “no” to the house guest thing. I’m just not comfortable with that right now. My house is small and old-fashioned. I miss my friend Lois, and I badly want my cousin Linda and her daughter, Andrea, to visit, but that will have to wait at least until the old people are vaccinated.

The ONLY thing that happens to me now that seems to reflect stress is that I’ve had more migraines since this started.

I also realize I’m very lucky in all this to live in a pretty remote place and to be retired. I’m also lucky to be an introvert. That has been interesting. Over the years I’ve had friends who thought there was something wrong with me when, on a Friday or Saturday night, or after work, I didn’t want to go out and ‘meet men’ or go to a party or whatever was appropriate to that moment in life.

Now I think there’s something wrong with THOSE people because they’re “suffering” being unable to socialize in random large groups of strangers. “Why would you want to do that, anyway?” I think. Weird. Our sacred self is really the “standard” by which we measure the rest of humanity.

Sorry for all the typos (which I keep finding). Still fighting the migraine… Sigh.


I should have taken more photos yesterday when I was out with Teddy at the Big Empty. There was virga that really did look like fringe hanging from the dark clouds. It was beautiful. The easternmost part of the mountains closest to me, the San Juans, is only a couple of miles away. Most of the time, when a storm comes over from the west, the higher elevations take the rain. Then, like yesterday, the clouds float over the valley – still raining at the elevation of the mountains making rain fringe in the sky.

I took the featured photo six years ago as I was leaving the San Luis Valley after my very first (adult) visit here during which I looked at my dream house (still here, still empty) and fell in love with my town and the valley. The mountains in the photo are the Sangre de Cristos. My friend Lois and I were headed to Valley View Hot Springs in Crestone and then up to Colorado Springs.

Anniversary Journey to the Big Empty

Six years ago today I saw the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge for the first time.

Strangely, it wasn’t until this year that it became “my” place. That probably wouldn’t even have happened if it hadn’t been for two things. 1) Off leash dogs at the spots where I usually took my dogs, 2) the virus and the need to walk freely without worrying about human contact.

Once I started taking Bear and then Teddy to the Refuge, no other place had any appeal. The big spaces, the changing mountain views, the weather, the birds, the whole THING. Yeah, it’s just a couple miles on a dirt road but WHAT a couple of miles!!!

This afternoon it suddenly clouded up, the wind started blowing, and I thought, “A-HA no mosquitoes!” I saddled up Teddy and we took off.

“Yay! Martha!”

Dark dark sky over the San Juans as you can see in the featured photo. Big peals of rolling thunder. Amazing changing light over Mt. Blanca. Holy fucking shit. And then, to put the final wonder on this wonder I saw dozens of…

Sandhill Cranes!!!!!

As it happens, Facebook told me yesterday and today that in past years I have seen cranes the first time in “fall” around the first of August.

You can see how dark it was where Teddy and I were walking! The sun shone on Mt. Blanca

The thunder and lightning got a little close and I swear I actually ran.

I’m happy the cranes are back. I’m happy we got to go out in a storm. Walking Teddy is so much easier out there than in town, so that was also great. When I got home, this song came on Mohammed’s Radio. Seriously.


I’m the head honcho of Martha, Bear and Teddy, but what that actually means in the grand scheme is less than negligible. I was talking to a friend on the phone last night trying to explain that since I retired, I know a LOT less than I did when I was “holding up the sky” and teaching everyone in the world how to write and communicate in a businesslike fashion. Both Socrates and Lao Tzu said (in their later years?) that knowing that you don’t know is 1) wisdom 2) the Tao. Or something… I was trying to explain to my friend that when we’re working our world depends on our expertise, and we have to KNOW what we’re spending 8+ hours a day doing, thinking, talking about.

The competence imperative is removed from our lives when we’re not holding up the sky any more. It’s really difficult to change gears or even KNOW we need to change gears; a lot of people don’t. I did, but godnose how I managed that.

I remember in my 30s getting together with another teacher (in her 30s) and marching to the boss’ (in her late 40s) office with a solution to the problem of students being unhappy in the level in which they had been placed at our language school. The students believed they’d been put in a low (in their opinion) level so that the school could make more money by making the students take more time to be ready to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). My colleague said the students should be placed in groups that they wouldn’t recognize as levels, “Blue birds, robins, what not,” she said, “instead of numbers like 102, 103, 104.” Students especially hated 104 — intermediate. It WAS hard to progress past that.

The boss agreed that a lot of students came to her wanting to be placed in a higher level, but that our testing was accurate and placement was almost always correct. If it wasn’t, students were given a chance to change levels. My contention was that there were students who would learn if they were slightly misplaced and had to reach. It got to be a pretty loud argument and you are probably reading this thinking, “Who CARES????”

As I got older I became a lot less polemical. The last episode like this I remember was between me (50 something) and some young teachers (30 something) over my syllabus. My syllabus evolved into this horrible thing, four pages long and covering every possible nightmare I’d confronted in my years teaching. I’d learned that a syllabus is a legal document and also a teaching tool. The more I spelled out about how a student could succeed (or fail) in my class, the more useful it would be for me and them. Students got it and liked it. It usually went in the front of their notebooks and they used it to gain direction in the classes I taught. But my 30 something colleagues complained that it didn’t “reflect the temper of the times” and was “snarky” and not “supportive.”

I didn’t even know what “snarky” meant, but I knew where I was in this business of holding up the sky. I explained WHY my syllabus was like it was and asked them to send me a sample ideal syllabus. Their response was how, after I had taught so long, didn’t I KNOW what a syllabus “should” be?

They were picking a fight, and I wasn’t having it. Aside from certain information a syllabus MUST contain, I didn’t think my syllabus was their business, but they were at the “We KNOW things” stage of their career, and I was at the “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate,” stage of my career.

When my mom died, an older friend described life as a “wave.” “Now you’re on the crest of the wave,” she said. I’ve thought about that often, even to the point of imagining waves and how strange it must be for the wave, who’s spent all its life out there in the ocean, to find itself suddenly on the alien world of the shore, all shallow and stuff, where water is no longer the WHOLE WORLD but, rather, sand, rocks, and — ewww — dryness. “Wow,” thinks the wave, “I don’t know ANYTHING about this.”

It has to be like this. In our middle years, the “productive years,” we’re doing the hard work of raising kids, earning a living and all that entails. A certain amount of aggressive certainty is absolutely necessary and part of human progress. BUT life’s REAL luxury, the earned reward of survival, might be not having to know everything any more. ❤

Beans and Mountains

I don’t pretend to be a photographer, but reading Xenia’s post this morning inspired me to be a photographer just this once.

In these strange times I’ve definitely needed — and found — sanctuary in two places. The closest is in the midst of my Scarlet Emperor Bean garden in my yard. I first grew these beans two years ago — this is the third season — from seeds I bought the year before. That year I was about to have a hip replacement. I started the beans in the house. I named them after Chinese emperors. I planted them outside soon after I got home from my surgery. They grew to be seven feet tall — something I wasn’t even prepared for! I watched them grow in a kind of wonderment and let them go to seed. I harvested their beautiful purple and black seeds to plant in the future. Last year we had a chilly kind of summer and the beans I planted didn’t do well, but this year?

It’s difficult to explain how watching them grow has been so incredibly heartening. I love them and maybe it’s mutual. They are now ten feet tall and are also delicious.

Scarlet Emperor Beans reaching for the sky

My sanctuary all my life has been nature. I’m fortunate to live in a remote part of Colorado that is surrounded by wide open spaces and mountain ranges on all sides. This year my dogs and I have spent a lot of time out in the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge. I’m pretty sure of having plenty of social distance.The Refuge is home to the Monte Vista Sandhill Crane Festival in March. It’s a wild and beautiful place with fantastic skies.

Mt. Blanca
Mt. Blanca (winter)
Mt. Blanca, March
Sandhill Cranes in front of the Sangre de Cristo mountains

This week we invite you to share what Sanctuary means to you, where you find it or how you create your place of calm and healing. In your post, please make sure you include a link to this challenge and use the Lens-Artists tag so we can find your post in the WP Reader.

Lens-Artists Weekly Photo Challenge #108: Sanctuary

Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

Back in 2004 I went to Verona to study Italian for a month. One of the biggest things I learned there is that the Italian I spoke at the time was full of mistakes. My Italian sounded great but wasn’t. It sounded great because I’d spent a lot of time with a family of native speakers in Zürich and I’d been in Italy several times. I’d studied on my own as well, using a great CD rom that was actually interesting.

The problem with my Italian was Spanish. They are very similar, and I’d spoken Spanish most of my life. In fact, when my soon-to-be teachers read my written test, they didn’t know if I was a native English speaker or native Spanish speaker.

I was placed in the lowest class for grammar and stuff. I got to hang out with the smart kids in the afternoon for an art history seminar. BUT, outside of school, my schoolmates shunned me. My schoolmate from Austria even said in plain Italian on a field trip to Padova that she didn’t want to talk to me because she’d only learn bad Italian from me. I don’t think she imagined I understood almost everything people said in Italian. Maybe she didn’t realize I understood her.

And that was that, except for a British woman from Manchester with whom I made friends.

After about three weeks into the month, we had a field trip to Giardino Giusti, where I’d already been. I hadn’t gone to Verona to hang out with classmates and practice grammar, anyway. I was following Goethe and seeing the city, especially the paintings in the churches. Italians I met on my peregrinations didn’t care that my Italian wasn’t perfect, so I practiced a lot. I was obviously a foreigner it wasn’t a great time to be an American, Iraq war and so on… Italy had allied with the US and many Italians didn’t like this, evidenced by the rainbow colored “Pace” — peace — flags hanging from balconies.

Giardino Giusti is an old formal garden, so old, that Goethe had been there. He had loved it and had cut branches from the cypress trees to take back to his hotel/apartment. This act of German instinct was met with condolences as he walked home. The Veronese thought someone Goethe cared for had died or why else would he have branches from cypress trees?

Language isn’t just words.

In Giardino Giusti, beside a cypress tree, is a little plaque (one of several I saw on that trip) attesting to the fact that Goethe had been there. Clearly I was not history’s only Goethe pilgrim.

That afternoon, I wandered around the garden with my school mates. The Austrian woman assiduously avoided me. As is the case with many formal gardens of the times, there was a labyrinth. We decided to “do” the labyrinth and as we strolled through it I said, in German, “Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf.” This is from Faust, the prologue. The poet/playwrite bewails the wrong turns he’s taken in his life but comments that they are good fodder for drama. It says, according to my translation, “Life’s labyrinthine course of error.”

That phrase had become a kind of mantra for me, an explanation of my own labyrinthine existence that made no sense whatsoever.

“That’s not right,” said the Austrian woman in English. “Why are you trying to quote Goethe? What could you know of Goethe?”

I shrugged. It was right, and I knew it. I also knew that Goethe is a kind of demi-god in German speaking countries, and I wasn’t in a position to prove anything.

“I brought Faust with me. I will look it up when I get back to my apartment. I’ll show you tomorrow,” she continued.

I’d already decided she was just kind of a linguistic Nazi. And she was wrong.

The next morning, she came to school and brought Faust. Instead of showing me that I had been wrong, she showed me that I had been right. I thought that was pretty cool of her. I also liked how the little interchange illustrated Goethe’s assessment of life. After that, she and I began a friendship that lasted a couple of years.

One of the things I learned on that journey was the low esteem in which Americans are held in Europe. Most of my schoolmates (and teachers), at first, didn’t understand why I was there. Few Americans had ever attended that school. Then, they assumed I was a war-mongering, imperialistic, arrogant American. My Austrian friend confided to me later that she never imagined an American who had read Goethe. The list of their assumptions about Americans was pretty long. When they learned I’d already attended the opera (which is held in the Arena and is absolutely amazing), they wanted to go, too, so we all went to see Madame Butterfly. They weren’t totally wrong about Americans, but not totally right either except maybe the learning languages part. In any case, that summer I found it easier to let strangers think I was a German tourist.

A blog post about Goethe’s Faust that I wrote a while ago

RagTag Daily Prompt, maze

Let Go!!!

I had no idea how to approach this tree (well, on foot, clearly) but decided I had to go for it. That was an experience (that worked). I held my brush at arm’s length, perpendicular to the panel, barely holding the brush and voilá! It was so much fun. And though there is more I could paint, I don’t see any reason. The tree has emerged as itself.

Now to figure out who the woman is.

“What are Your Plans for the Rest of the Summer?”

Yesterday a friend stopped by for a short visit which was great. We sat on my deck and drank iced tea and ate cake. I spent the morning cleaning the deck (argh…) and getting the umbrella set up as well as reconstructing Bear’s morning deconstruction project. My friend lives 3 hours away.

Of course we talked about the virus, about peoples’ response to it, how she deals with it (she’s working in a people-contact field). She’s had it early on, and I wanted to know how that went. Then she asked me about my plans for the rest of the summer.

I must have given her a very blank look because inside, my brain was a blank. What am I going to do with the rest of the summer?

I expect I’ll continue to celebrate my amazing beans, work on paintings (maybe more than one, no idea), dodge mosquitoes and deer flies, clean house, repair shit, paint garden signs which I will sell in my Etsy shop at very low prices and for which I’ll take orders. Then, September will come which is usually the Potato Festival — harvest celebration and end of tourist season. I doubt that will happen this year, but tourist season will end (if schools start).

Then the leaves will turn, the trails will be amazing, the mosquitoes will relax their relentless assault, the temps will be cooler, the days shorter and the first of the two really good seasons will be upon us.

I don’t like wishing my days away, but this year think we all are. I don’t think any of us is 100% OK. When I look at all the chaos in the country, I’m sure of it. We’re all a little out of our minds — some days more than others. When the virus hit, I didn’t have to think too long to understand my job was surviving until there’s a cure or vaccine. That is such a primal imperative it’s almost unfathomable. It doesn’t require any thought which is, right there, incomprehensible. We’re so attached to our sacred human brains that from time to time it just seems weird not to need it for a decision. I see people around me USING their brains for this and mostly, it seems, they use their brains as a way to rationalize refuting the primal imperative.

I saw the same thing when I was evacuated from a wild fire in California in 2003. I got it. Get out or die. That’s not a decision. That’s put dog food, human food, water, sleeping bag, tent and dogs in the truck and DRIVE. Lots of people didn’t get it — well, they got it for good and all, actually, but until their lives intersected with fire, they’d been able to use their brains to deny its reality somehow.

I looked at my friend and said, “I’m here for the duration. I don’t have any disposable income, and anyway, I like it here.” For that, I am very, very lucky.

But…I think it’s important to remember (I have to remind myself) that people aren’t OK. I watched a “viral” video on Twitter last month of a young woman in Arizona filming herself at Target basically having a nervous breakdown. She was attacking displays of masks and cursing them out. Of course, she was soundly condemned by all and sundry but I thought, “She is out of her mind. I don’t know if she has a legit mental illness or if she’s crazy from fear and anger, but there but for the grace of God go all of us.”

It took me a long time to move past the wall of this and begin doing creative work. It started with the Etsy shop and the touching up a painting that looked “wrong” in a photograph. As I fixed the painting I felt, for the first time since this started, the sweet combination of peace and excitement that is, for me, creative work. Realizing THAT, I started a difficult painting and was soon lost in it. And now, another. I think everyone has some block inside right now, days of confusion, days of resignation, normal days, scared days, frustrated and angry days, lonely days.

Better days will come one way or another, and in the meantime? I guess we just do the best we can.

Garden sign almost finished…